Wabamun landmark comes tumbling down

Like giant trees falling to a logger’s chainsaw, the iconic red and white stacks of TransAlta’s Wabamun power plant came tumbling down Friday in what is called an “engineered, controlled drop.”

The first one fell before 10 a.m., but a technical glitch delayed the other two for more than an hour.

Just 15 kilograms of dynamite and 75 blasting caps placed in strategic areas of each stack brought down the three, 100-metre reinforced concrete stacks in a matter of seconds.

“When you think that one or two kilograms of dynamite is used to blow up a beaver dam, its doesn’t seem like much. But it is where you put the charge,” said Ralph Leriger, manager of stakeholder relations for TransAlta Corp.

Ontario-based demolition firm Quantum Murray has spent the last year slowly taking apart the old power plant. The stacks were weakened, and dynamite placed at the base in the direction of the intended drop. The explosion blew out a wedge of concrete, and the stacks collapsed toward that side.

Clearing visible from the Yellowhead Highway, the stacks have been a landmark for the hamlet of Wabamun 70 kilometres west of Edmonton since they went up in the early 1960s, replacing smaller stacks built in 1954.

The original plant that was built by Calgary Power for $8 million was at first gas-fired, but later enlarged and switched to coal from the adjacent Whitewood mine which was north of the highway.

TransAlta has been slowly reclaiming the whole area for more than a decade, turning the old mine – once a landmark with its giant green and yellow dragline – into hills of hay, cereal crops, trees and the popular East End Pit lake.

Leriger said Quantum Murray will continue to dismantle the old plant, shipping out metal for recycling by rail. When the firm departs at the end of the year, all that will remain will be a AltaLink substation, part of the provincial electrical grid that must remain in place.

TransAlta has donated waterfront land for a wildlife area, a spot that has been colonized by western grebes – distinctive black and white water birds.

The hamlet also has plans for development of some surrounding lands, and hopes to remake itself into a destination resort.

In a booming Alberta during the 1950s, the idea of an integrated coal mine and power plant on the shores of Wabamun Lake seemed like the perfect way to meet the soaring demand for electricity.

There was lots of good coal – the area had been mined since 1907 – and water for cooling.

Eventually, four turbines were installed with a capacity of 537 megawatts. The large 279-megawatt unit was the last to go, and was shut down a year ago.

Over its service life, the plant produced 3.7 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy each year – enough to supply about 500,000 households.

“Alberta is our company’s birthplace and Wabamun played a key role in powering the growth of this province,” said Steve Snyder, president and chief executive of TransAlta, at a ceremony last April when the plant was decommissioned.

Compared with newer power plants, Wabamun is small. Visible across the lake, TransAlta’s Sundance plant alone produces more than 2,000 megawatts. Farther south, TransAlta’s Keephills and Epcor’s Genesee plants produce more than 2,500 megawatts.

The demolition and reclamation of the Wabamun facility will be the first in Canada for an integrated facility.

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